Chapel cars were a fleet of thirteen railroad cars outfitted as chapels, with living quarters for clergy, that plied the rails of the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by similar cars that the Russian Orthodox Church deployed in Siberia, and built under the auspices of the Baptist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches, and with names such as Evangel, Herald of Hope and St Anthony, chapel cars brought religion to frontier towns blessed with an overabundance of saloons and bawdy houses but no churches. One story has it that a small boy, seeing a train with chapel car attached pull into town, asked what it was for. When the preacher explained it to him, he exclaimed, ‘Well, don’t that beat the devil!’ ‘Exactly!’ the preacher replied. Only a few chapel cars have survived in museums or, in the case of one, at a Baptist camp in Wisconsin where, fully restored, it is still used for worship. The car called Evangel, one of the oldest, saw service in almost every Western state before coming to rest in Rawlins, Wyoming, where in 1925 the First Baptist Church, now the Chapel Car Bible Church, was built around it. Renovations to the present building have uncovered parts of the original chapel car that are being painstakingly restored. The side door to the sanctuary is one of the original doors from the car.
In 1845, the American Baptist Home Mission Society decided that separate Northern and Southern Conventions were necessary due to differences in beliefs concerning the keeping of slaves, among other things. Northern Baptists remained unorganized until 1907, when the Northern Baptist Convention was formed. They renamed themselves American Baptist Churches USA in 1972. Generally speaking more liberal than their Southern counterpart (for example, local congregations determine whether or not to perform same-sex marriages or to ordain LGBT clergy), they claim to be the most racially inclusive body within Protestantism. At Chapel Car Bible Church there are morning and evening worship services each Sunday, plus Sunday school and a youth group. They have Bible study on Wednesday evenings, and a fellowship luncheon on the third Sunday of the month.
Rawlins, in south-central Wyoming, was named for Army General John A. Rawlins, who in 1867 led a team surveying a route for the Transcontinental Railroad. The story goes that Rawlins, noting that water rations were running low, sent out a scouting party who discovered a cold, fresh spring. Declaring its waters to be the best he had ever tasted, Rawlins is said to have exclaimed, ‘If anything is ever named after me, I hope it will be a spring like this one!’ A town grew up around the spot – one of hundreds of similar towns along the railroad catering to the railroad workers’ need for eating, sleeping, and bathing accommodations, as well as those other needs: alcohol, gambling, and women not exactly of the marrying kind! Today’s Rawlins is a decidedly plebeian little city with some commercial buildings and churches of interesting historical value, but not much else. The railroad still runs through Rawlins although passenger service is long gone. An historical marker denotes the spot where General Rawlins sipped the waters.
The pastor led the service. He looked quite dapper in a light gray shirt with blue tie, dark gray slacks, and gray sneakers. I forgave him his choice of footwear since they matched the rest of his outfit so perfectly.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Morning Worship.
How full was the building?
It’s not a large room – I estimate that about 50 could fit comfortably. There were 15 of us this morning. I was told that quite a few parishioners are traveling this weekend.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived early, and entered via a side door into an empty hallway and called out ‘Hello.’ The pastor immediately came out and introduced himself. In a moment a young gentleman entered via the same door I had, and we exchanged names.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was OK – typical church pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pastor said that Sunday school was about to start and that I was welcome to join the class. There were about seven of us in all. We read Acts 19 (Paul’s influence on exorcists and peddlers of pagan merchandise at Ephesus) and discussed our reaction to the passage. We concluded with a prayer and then went into the sanctuary.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Well, before we move into worship, I want to call your attention to a couple of announcements …’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New American Standard Bible, the Worship His Majesty hymnal, and The Master Chorus Book were in the pews, but we sang out of Worship His Majesty only.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The pastor led the singing a cappella. There was an upright piano to the left, and an electric organ to the right, but they both remained silent. A woman told me she hadn’t heard anyone play the organ for a very long time. The church’s website states that they are looking for musicians.
Did anything distract you?
The principal distraction was the fact that I had to catch a bus and I hoped the service would be over in time for me to get to the bus stop. The pastor assured me that it would – and I had another assurance that I’ll mention below.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich. The music was all old standby hymns. We opened with the pastor reading Psalm 84 (‘How lovely is thy dwelling place’) and speaking briefly about its meaning. This was followed by a prayer. Then we sang ‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’ followed by a meet and greet and ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ The collection was taken up, after which we sang the customary doxology. Prayer requests were received, and we prayed. Then came the sermon, after which we sang ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.’ Finally the pastor dismissed us with a blessing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The pastor spoke informally and conversationally, glancing down at notes now and then. I thought his thesis was good but that he could have benefited from more careful organization.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Galatians 5:2-12 (circumcision has no value anymore). What’s all this about circumcision? Paul tells the Galatians not to turn away from Christ and back to their old ways. But don’t neglect Moses and the Prophets, he tells them. Who is it who is trying to turn you away from Christ? Shame on them! Being Jewish doesn’t automatically save you. Nothing that you yourselves do will save you except turning to Christ. Not even baptism will save you. After all, Jesus assured the Good Thief that he would be with him in Paradise – and he wasn’t baptized. But he had turned to Christ. It’s easy to take our eyes off Christ and to turn inward to ourselves, but that will bring us condemnation. Put your sins on Christ – and Christ in turn will put his perfect life on you.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was reminded of a poem by the Colonial American Puritan poet Edward Taylor, ‘The Joy of Church Fellowship Rightly Attended’, that compares the Church to a coach traveling toward heaven full of happy, singing passengers. Taylor could not conceal his Puritan smugness, and of course he was not thinking of a railroad car, but still we had ‘saints’ in ‘Christ’s coach’ ‘sweetly singing’ those old tried and true hymns on our way to heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Please bear with me – I’m saving this for the question below. But it really is a pity that the congregation can’t find a pianist or organist to lead the singing. The pastor did his best to lead us, and we all sang along pretty well, but hymns like these need a good solid organ accompaniment.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At Sunday school I said that I had a favor to ask – that I needed to catch a bus but had no way of getting to the bus stop (Rawlins has no Uber service, no car rental agency, and the one taxi company in town is notoriously unreliable judging from reviews on their website). I asked if someone could please give me a ride. The young gentleman who had entered after me said he would. Hellish? No – heavenly! But when we got out to his truck, I noticed some bumper stickers espousing a political view that – well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have thought that the young gentleman was one who felt that way judging from what I could see of his personality and character.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. As mentioned above, they have a fellowship luncheon on the third Sunday of the month, and this was the fourth. But thanks to the young gentleman with the shocking bumper stickers, I arrived at the bus stop in plenty of time.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — It’s unlikely I’ll return to Rawlins, but if I do, I wouldn’t mind stopping in again. They seemed like lovely people, very friendly and welcoming, and it was a joy to worship with them. I especially enjoyed the Sunday school session.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Being in this historic church at last and being able to write this report.